Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reading A Christmas Carol with my Kids

Source of book: I own several copies. See below for notes on the edition.

Every year, for the last five years, I have spent the week after our insane week of rehearsals and performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet reading one of Charles Dickens’ Christmas novels. Last year, I read the last in the series, The Haunted Man. My review of that book resulted in the first print publication of my writing. (I now have a weekly column for our local bar association’s newsletter. No, I don’t make a dime off it, but it starts conversations, which is surprisingly fun.) This year, I decided to introduce my children to the joys of Charles Dickens.

My first introduction to Dickens was when I was about 9 or 10. My mother loved David Copperfield, and read it to us as soon as she thought we could understand it. My sister must have been about 6, so I figured my girls at least would be ready. So yes, I came from a weird family, and am doing my best to carry on the family tradition.

We read this over a period of four days. The book itself is divided into five sections, labeled “Staves”. (A stave is one of the five lines in a musical staff. It’s a carol. Get it? All of the Christmas novels have some sort of internal reference in the chapter headings.) The last section, the epilogue, is short, so I combined it with the previous section on the last day.

I admit I had a great deal of fun using proper voices for this book. Grouchy old Scrooge is particularly fun, as are Marley and the Christmas Ghosts. That part of the story was easy for the kids. Where it got harder was when Dickens described the past and future events. The references are a bit elliptical, to say the least – best understood if one has both knowledge of the nineteenth century and familiarity with Dickens’ writing style. I had to stop every few paragraphs and give the kids a synopsis of what was really going on. Fortunately, they have good attention spans and were willing to let the story unfold slowly. Ok, so Fritz fell asleep a few times, but he is only three.

Since I became a parent, I have been amazed at how early children develop a sense of justice. This develops far more quickly than their speech. They know they have been slighted, even when all they can do is scream about it. Thus, Scrooge, with his “humbug” and “surplus population” and all was instantly a compelling character. So too were the ghosts, with each his unique appearance and voice. Or lack thereof. The final ghost is spookiest of all because all he does is point.

I imagine most people are already familiar with the plot. I did some online research last year, and found over a dozen movies based on this book. I even suspect that more people could recite the plot than could coherently give the original Christmas story. This is, after all, one of the most memorable plots of all time.

If you have not read this, what on earth are you waiting for? It is roughly 100 pages – easily readable in a few evenings. It is also a good introduction to the good and the flawed aspects of Dickens’ writing.

As a follow up, the kids and I watched A Muppet Christmas Carol this evening. While no substitute for reading the real thing, this version is remarkably true to the original in both substance and spirit. Having read the book immediately prior, I was impressed again with how many of the best lines from the book made it directly into the movie – a movie aimed at children, no less! The two versions I am partial to are the Alistair Sim rendition, Scrooge (1951) and the Muppet movie. Despite their different approaches, they best capture that actual spirit of the book.

Anyway, the kids remembered the plot exceedingly well by the time we got to the movie. I was impressed that Ella particularly had carefully noted what each ghost looked like, and was able to point out to Fritz who all the characters were. Perhaps next year we will read this one again, or continue with The Cricket on the Hearth.

For tonight, I will go to bed with the memory of the sound of Fritz saying, “Ebenee Scooge” and “Fozziwig”.

Notes on the edition:

I own at least three copies of this book. The first is part of a Heritage Books collection of Dickens that I have collected over the last 20 years. I received my first few from Dale Brooks, who was kind enough to introduce me to both P. G. Wodehouse and Anthony Trollope when I was a teen. The five Christmas novels were one of these first books. The second is part of the Reader’s Digest hardback series The World’s Best Reading. These should not be confused with the condensed books from the same publisher. These are all unabridged classics in a good quality hardback binding. I have collected nearly 100 of these one at a time from used book stores, eBay, thrift stores, and library sales. My first was Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which is still one of my favorite books. The last is the edition that we read from this time. Published by Candlewick Press, it was a gift from my mother-in-law several years ago. (This alone should tell you how blessed I am to have her as a relative.) This book is gorgeously illustrated on at least every other page. Usually, I am disappointed by the modern illustrations in Dickens, being partial to the originals by “Phiz” and George Cruikshank and others. (A good website for the originals is: In this book, P. J. Lynch as done an excellent job of capturing the nuance of the prose. Each character looks precisely as he or she should, but with a more modern feel to the backgrounds and atmosphere. I can highly recommend this edition as an excellent hardback and an essential part of any serious library. 

1 comment:

  1. Glad to know this is a read aloud in other houses. And yes, I have read many other of Dickens's Christmas tales. I think Cricket on the Hearth is one of my favorites. Nice to see it got a little shout out.